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So, what does it take to create a startup that succeeds? Is it knowing the art of building successful apps? Or it is all about technical skills? For many startups where non-technical founders have created award-winning tech products, nothing could be further from the truth.
For those who liken creating apps without tech knowledge to cooking in the absence of the right recipe, here’s news. Founders and CEOs with non-technical skills are shaping tech startups worldwide. Let’s start with the startup that revolutionized the concept of a home away from home: Airbnb.
Brian Chesky is the co-founder of Airbnb. He was also a designer to start with. Founding the peer-to-peer lodging service and becoming an internet billionaire was simply a matter of succeeding where great minds have failed. Brian was also named among the 100 most influential people by Time’s Magazine.
Brian worked as an industrial designer at an LA firm right at the start of his career post a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Industrial Design way back in 2004. The Rhode Island School of Design alumnus is now brushing shoulders with the likes of Facebook’s techie founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Airbnb has emerged as a market leader in recent times in the online hospitality industry, showing there’s always room for a great idea. In January 2017, Airbnb invested in Resy, a restaurant reservation app along with Gary Vaynerchuk and Mike Montero.
The company first became profitable in 2016. It’s 2017 acquisitions ranged across Canada’s Luxury Retreat, social payment startup Tilt and travel accessibility startup Accomable. In 2018, Airbnb plus was offered along with luxury rentals by Beyond Airbnb. In March 2019, Airbnb completed an acquisition of over USD 400 million by purchasing hotel booking website HotelTonight.
The founder of StyleSeat, an online appointment management system for stylists and the largest marketplace in the beauty services industry is a non-tech innovator. Melody McCloskey and co-founder Dan Levine work incredibly well together, sharing a common passion for making solutions that appeal to the beauty industry. More than USD 300 million worth of appointments has been booked through StyleSeat. Melody’s company offers an impressive listing of 200K stylists in 15,000 cities. After completing a degree in French and International Relations at UC Davis, the last thing on Melody’s mind was starting a tech company.
This was about to change when she was at the receiving end of not one, but three styling disasters priced at USD 300 each. She worked in PR on the product side and made history when she quit the job to start StyleSeat. Giving women a chance to find the dream stylist at the single click of a mouse or a swipe of a smartphone proved to be a revolutionary idea.
Innovating for women in tech, Melody’s venture has provided clear proof that tech skills can only take you so far, especially while building a tech startup. At the end of the day, speed and decision making capabilities count as much. Rather than worrying about writing code, bring excellent product management skills to the board and you’ll do well, too. From fundraising to monetizing the concept, Melody took beauty with a purpose to a whole new level.
When it comes to tech behemoths and giants, tech titans like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg come to mind. But tech startups and products need not always have a leader with a technical background to succeed. Pandora Radio CEO and founder Tim Westergren is the case in point. He is a sound engineer and musician with a strong understanding of what drives a musical piece and the tech industry.
Tim donned many hats, working as a music composer, recorder and even a nanny to make ends meet, before setting up Pandora Radio. Named as one of Time’s Most Influential 100 people in 2010, Tim has led the tech startup to establish itself as a key player in the music industry.
From having USD 2 million in back wages to closing a 9 million funding deal, Tim has seen it all as far as Pandora Radio is concerned. Stepping down as CEO in 2017, Tim continues to inspire and lead the team at Pandora.
Slow and steady wins the race, and as a non-tech guy who started a premier tech company, Alex Turnbull of Groove HQ knows this better than anyone else. He started with sketching to come up with wireframes. This led to innovation when he founded Groove, a helpdesk software company.
In his blog, Alex explains how he used graphics editing software Photoshop to create mockups of the app and bridge the gap between co-founders and himself in terms of understanding. An avid surfer and a passionate software enthusiast without any technical skills, it took courage and grit to set up the software. But Alex was a visionary in 2011, introducing live chat when no one else even thought of it.
Because of his amazing grasp of the tech industry, a lot of iterations and money were saved. A serial entrepreneur, Alex’s company earns millions per month in recurring revenue. Groove was a culmination of a lot of hard work and persistence. And from the stats coming in as Groove draws in investors and advisors like David Hauser, noted entrepreneur, speaker and angel investor.
Non-tech co-founder Perri Gorman Chase thought of an email unsubscribe service and with the help of her tech friends, Unroll.me was born. Here’s what she learned in her own words. While prototypes look good at the front end, visual design made it easier for others to see what Perri wanted to accomplish.
She succeeded in communicating with engineers and developers who translated her vision into reality. The focus is on understanding if the engineering team can speak one’s language and vice versa. Perri spoke of how one needs to know the landscape, databases, programming and API integrations or (in other words) how things fit together.
Getting the basics right and controlling business outcomes are linked. Always maintain a database and an understanding of engineering processes and like Perri, you’ll get it right!
Founder and CEO of Teespring, Walker Williams worked as a cartoonist and writer before he set out to form a tech company, with zero knowledge of coding or programming. Right from the start, Walker pursued diverse interests. At 16, he made up his mind to be an entrepreneur. And then secured a BA degree in Arts and History from Brown University. Fresh out of university, he collaborated with co-founder Evans Stites Clayton and created a platform for custom merchandise. Unique custom designs, setting sales goals and even prices for items is what distinguishes Teespring from others in the business.
In 2016, Teespring was valued at USD 30 million alone. Walker was listed as the leading entrepreneur because of his revolutionary social commerce company. But it all began when the two friends Evans and Walker while still at University, designed and sold a t-shirt to commemorate the closing of a local hangout. Now, Teespring attracts 100K orders per month and growing! It has even been featured in Y Combinator’s blog.
Founder and CEO of iCracked, AJ Forsyth actually holds a degree in science and biology/psychology! He’s tried his hands at everything from the winery to beekeeping before settling for the on-demand smartphone repair service through iCracked. While Forsythe graduated from California Polytechnic State University in 2011, he founded iCracked way before that. From a college dorm room in 2010 to the world’s largest, most efficient repair service for tablets and smartphones, Forsythe has come a long way as has his venture iCracked. The company has over 4K certified iTech professionals and operates in 11 countries. AJ also made it to Forbes 30 under 30 for his achievement. With the next move towards smart homes for all, iCracked is an early adopter with a difference.
Founder and CEO of Vida Health Inc., Stephanie Tilenius is a Harvard and Brandeis University alumni with degrees in Economics and International Finance. So what motivated her to found a tech health company despite her non-tech background? Stephanie sought to provide expert, on-demand, personalized health coaching along with programs from experienced healthcare providers and leading medical centers.
Close to 133 million individuals in the US live alone and face chronic health conditions. Her father had 4 chronic health conditions and as she struggled to build a health infrastructure to support him, Stephanie realized the need for having a scalable continuous mobile care platform and Vida Health was formed.
In Stephanie’s words, Vida Health is the first “horizontal digital therapeutic” services provider. She also supports women entrepreneurs through Rivet Ventures, a fund.
Founder and Chairman of Tinder, Sean Rad was a college dropout until he founded the dating app and became a CEO! Rad founded Tinder in 2012 with two other co-founders. Tinder managed a million matches within just 2 months of its launch.
Further, Tinder had over 3.7 million paid subscribers, up by 81% over the same quarter in 2017. Presently, Tinder is valued at USD 3 billion. It is one of the highest grossing apps in the app store.
Founder and CEO of Vayable, Jamie Wong is a filmmaker par excellence and founder of tech company Vayable that uses technologies to promote travel. Jamie has a background in communication, advocacy, and disruptive media. She has pursued Art, History, and Politics, going onto a BA in History at Wesleyan University and finally the Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She founded Vayable in 2010, driven by the need to share collective and unique travel experiences, and it’s been quite a journey so far. Jamie’s tech company has a presence in 240 cities and was also featured in NYT, WSJ, and CNN.
Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer at Pinterest, Evan Sharp was definitely not a techie when he came up with the idea. Evan studied Architecture at Columbia University. Prior to that, he pursued a BA in History from the University of Chicago.
While enrolled at the architecture course, he met Ben Silbermann, co-founder, and CEO of Pinterest. The image sharing site was launched in 2010. It is one of the most creative social media channels out there. In October 2018, Pinterest spanned a user base of 250 million monthly active individuals and 175 billion Pinterest Pins.
Pinterest, Vayable or any of the other tech products created by non-tech founders are doing so well. This proves you need innovation, not technical knowledge if you want to thrive in the tech startup world. So don’t let the absence of a formal degree deter you. Remember, knowledge grows with experience and expertise is not about coding alone!